Modern Architecture


Modernism’s awakening at the beginning of the 20th century manifested itself in the Western world not only in archi­tecture, but also in the most diverse areas of society.

Scientific disco­veries and technical inven­tions contri­buted to an unpre­ce­dented accele­ration of human life.

Already since the middle of the 19th century, indus­tria­lization and urbanization had changed all areas of life.

Increasing electri­fi­cation and new means of mass trans­por­tation accele­rated this develo­pment from the turn of the century onward and had a signi­ficant impact on aesthetic experiences.

Departure from Historicism

The move away from histo­ricism in archi­tecture and the search for new forms of expression and life became the starting point for a variety of artistic and social currents.

These ranged from Jugendstil, the Lebens- und Hausreform movement, the concept of the garden city, the founding of the Werkbund, to the insti­tu­tio­na­lization of so-called Neues Bauen with the emergence of the Bauhaus in Weimar and later Dessau.

Before and after the First World War, Germany was a testing ground for archi­tec­tural modernism, driven by the concern that the change in living condi­tions should find its counterpart in the expression of modern buildings.

Housing freed from tradi­tional models, social housing construction, and new designs for non-profit and eccle­si­a­stical buildings as well as technical and commercial buildings were central themes in the rapidly growing cities.

Change of Paradigm

During the late 19th century, the shift towards modern archi­tecture took place for a number of reasons.

Search for an appro­priate and univer­sally valid archi­tec­tural style was one of the most pressing issues in the field of archi­tecture in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Not until the end of the 19th century did a change in living condi­tions in the cities slowly take hold: Affordable modern housing with light and air was to replace the old tenements with their numerous stone and dark backyards, making them available to all classes of the population.

Residential Complex, 1927. Architect: Mies van der Rohe

Stuttgart: Residential Complex, 1927. Architect: Mies van der Rohe. Photo: Daniela Christmann

Use of such materials as glass, iron, zinc, steel and concrete created entirely new possi­bi­lities for construction.

On the occasion of the World’s Fairs in parti­cular, European countries were keen to showcase their achie­ve­ments. For the first time, huge exhibition halls made of steel and glass were erected in the host cities for this purpose.

Experience with these materials had already existed since indus­tria­lization in the mid-19th century, when factory halls, train stations and green­houses became new construction tasks and the changed technical possi­bi­lities allowed wide-span construc­tions with curtain walls.

By the end of the 19th century, disil­lu­sionment was felt with the archi­tecture of histo­ricism, whose academic erudition had done nothing to solve the pressing social problems.

Rejection of tradi­tional archi­tec­tural forms thus became the starting point for the search for a new style that would better suit the changed way of life and the needs of a new era.

With the construction of buildings made of iron, glass and concrete, a consistent reduction of archi­tecture to its functional components was already in the offing.

New Designs

Tagblatt Turm, 1924-1928. Architekt: Ernst Otto Oßwald

Stuttgart: Tagblatt Tower, 1924–1928. Architect: Ernst Otto Oßwald. Photo: Daniela Christmann

Following the great fire of 1871, the impetus for the inner-city skyscraper as a radically new building form came primarily from Chicago.

European archi­tects subse­quently tackled the new building type.

From England, on the other hand, came the life-reform approach of William Morris, who saw craft­smanship and artistic activity as the basis of a fulfilled life.

Art Nouveau archi­tecture, reform archi­tecture and the garden city movement – origi­nating with Hermann Muthesius – drew essential impulses from this.

Art Nouveau

Maison Saint-Cyr, 1901-1903. Architect: Gustave Strauven

Maison Saint-Cyr, 1901–1903. Architect: Gustave Strauven. Photo: Daniela Christmann

Already at the time of its formation, Art Nouveau saw itself as modernist archi­tecture in contrast to the prevailing histo­ricism of the time.

Its attempt to harmonize art and everyday life, as well as its compre­hensive will to reform, distin­gu­ished Art Nouveau from a purely external renewal of architecture.

In its various manifes­ta­tions, Art Nouveau ranged from a floral variant that trans­ferred the moving line into stone, metal, and wood and that had its center of gravity between 1898 and 1904 in Germany, France, and Belgium, to Modernisme in Catalonia, to the archi­tecture of Viennese Modernism.

While in theory Art Nouveau appears as an attempt to integrate art into the life of society as a whole, in practice it soon took on predo­mi­nantly bourgeois characteristics.

Given the building tasks of the constantly growing cities, Art Nouveau became the common facade art on which the design intention of archi­tects and artisans could be realized.

Reform Architecture

Anatomische Anstalt der Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität, 1905-1907. Architekt: Max Littmann

Munich: Institute of Anatomy Ludwig-Maximilians-University, 1905–1907. Architect: Max Littmann. Photo: Daniela Christmann

In 1900, the awakening of the so-called Baukunst was linked to a general reform movement involving archi­tects, artists, intellec­tuals, academic circles as well as technical univer­sities and schools.

Cultural frames of reference in society seemed to have been lost, and it seemed necessary to bring a new archi­tec­tural style into being that corre­sponded to contem­porary demands for identity and uniformity of style.

Though many of the principles of Classical Modernism are antici­pated here, they are usually not immediately recognizable in the design of the buildings due to the recourse to histo­rical forms.

A uniform style cannot be found in reform archi­tecture. The buildings are instead evidence of the individual and personal design inten­tions of the architect in question.

In the experi­mental field between technical progress and recourse to the histo­rical model, buildings of the most varied character and conception were designed.

Frequently, reform archi­tecture, which sought a close relati­onship between landscape and house, was linked to social reform efforts.

Cooperatives, factories, building and savings associa­tions built sprawling housing complexes that met the criteria of practi­cality, simplicity and appropriateness.

Garden City Movement

Principles of the garden city movement were applied and steadily developed. 

Facade decoration disap­peared. Functionality without false pathos, simplicity and appro­pria­teness of means formed the corner­stones of this movement.

In Munich the Borstei, in Dresden the Gartenstadt Hellerau, in Essen the Margarethenhöhe housing estate are to be mentioned in this context. 

After World War I, urban planners and archi­tects took up the ideas of reform archi­tecture again in the course of the incre­asing housing shortage and developed them further in the formal language of the 1920s.

Urban Planning and Housing Development

Stockwerksiedlung, 1927-1930. Architekten: Carl Jaeger, Hanna Löv u.a

Munich: Stockwerk Estate, 1927–1930. Architecten: Carl Jaeger, Hanna Löv u.a. Photo: Daniela Christmann

World War I and its aftermath required a rethinking of urban planning and architecture.

Economic restric­tions on housing construction and the change of developer from a private owner to a non-profit building society or munici­pality had an impact on the archi­tec­tural language.

Housing development

Large housing estates had to be built in the shortest possible time to counteract the housing shortage. Elongated row buildings and large residential courtyards replaced the tenements of the pre-war period.

Decorative facades as a means of design were replaced by a unified exterior design which often charac­te­rized entire neighborhoods.

Artistic expression was limited to individual details, to fountains and sculp­tures in the courtyards, to entrance areas, stair railings, front doors and door handles, grilles and water collectors, to the colorfulness of the facades and their rhythmic division by window and door openings.


Einstein Tower, 1919-1924. Architect: Erich Mendelsohn

Potsdam: Einstein Tower, 1919–1924. Architect: Erich Mendelsohn. Photo: Daniela Christmann

Over the first three decades of the 20th century, a number of different archi­tec­tural styles quickly followed one another, interlocked, influenced one another, and remained current for longer or shorter periods of time, depending on the region and the circumstances.

Expressionism survived the First World War. Pre-war, it existed primarily in the visions of the so-called Glaeserne Kette, in the designs and sketches of Bruno Taut, Wenzel Hablik and Hans Poelzig.

These visions became reality after the First World War: the Chilehaus in Hamburg, the church buildings by Dominikus Böhm, Ernst and Günther Paul and Hans Voigt, the Grassimuseum in Leipzig, as well as a whole series of commercial buildings and housing estates were built. 

Ornamentation had not been accorded such importance since Art Nouveau. A tendency towards the Gesamtkunstwerk is charac­te­ristic of Expressionist architecture.

Brick and Concrete

Both brick and, to some extent, concrete were popular building materials. Contrary to Neue Sachlichkeit or Neues Bauen, Expressionist archi­tecture is charac­te­rized by rounded and curved lines on the one hand, and jagged, almost bizarre-looking shapes on the other, which in their urge to rise were deliberately intended to evoke associa­tions with the Gothic style.

The Bauhaus, especially in its Weimar phase, embraced many elements of Expressionism: Pragmatism, expressive simpli­fi­cation and a sense of ethical obligation to humanity were basic traits consistent with the school´s metho­do­lo­gical program. 

The Amsterdam School’s Expressionism continued to shape archi­tecture in the Netherlands well into the 1920s.

Art Deco

Villa Empain, 1930-1935. Architect: Michel Polak

Brussels, Villa Empain, 1930–1935. Architect: Michel Polak. Photo: Daniela Christmann

Within a short period of time, Art Deco developed from a French to an inter­na­tional trend in design, interior decoration and architecture. 

Its name is derived from the Paris exhibition Exposition inter­na­tionale des arts décoratifs et indus­triels modernes in 1925. 

Drawing on influences from Cubism, Futurism and Expressionism, it is charac­te­rized in German archi­tecture by ornamental complexity, acute angles and figurative decoration, overall by varied but mostly geome­tri­cally executed elements.

Developing further In high-rise archi­tecture in the United States, Art Deco reached a new height with polychromy and ornamentation.

The 1922 Gewerbeschau in Munich was ground­breaking for the decorative arts in Germany. 

It was Richard Riemerschmid who was respon­sible for the artistic design, while the Deutscher Werkbund was in charge of the planning, certainly combined with a taste-forming claim.

In German archi­tecture in parti­cular, Art Deco – often referred to as Expressionist Rococo in the twenties – cannot always be easily distin­gu­ished from Expressionism.

Once again, this shows that no univer­sally valid aesthetic model existed at the time. When Art Deco was allowed to be more austere and New Objectivity more elaborate, when the decorative style became expressive and Expressionism more matter-of-fact, the stylistic concepts reach their limits.

Bauhaus and Neues Bauen (New Building)

Bauhaus Building, 1925-1926. Architect: Walter Gropius

Dessau: Bauhaus Building, 1925–1926. Architect: Walter Gropius. Photo: Daniela Christmann

Walter Gropius founded the archi­tec­tural program of New Objectivity in 1911 with the construction of the Fagus Factory in Alfeld. 

Later it was referred to as Classic Modernism or, since the exhibition by Henry-Russell Hitchcock and Phillip Johnson in 1932 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, as International Style. 

Modernism’s striving for abstraction ultim­ately led to a reduction down to the geometric body.

Ornament became incre­asingly super­fluous, and the building was reduced to its functional form. Industrially manufac­tured components became the norm.

Large-scale glass, the flat roof, white walls with few colored details, archi­tecture modeled on an ocean liner or an engine, long bands of windows contrasting with white plaster surfaces charac­te­rized this new way of building.

Sharply cut openings, generous glazing, and ratio­na­lized floor plans dissolved into flowing spatial contours were further features.

The so-called Neues Bauen also expanded the possi­bi­lities for realization; alongside new residential models, roofs, windows, doors, furniture, fittings and kitchens were developed for indus­trial production.

The solution of the housing question as one of the key causes of social hardship was one of the most pressing problems to be tackled in the Weimar Republic after 1918.

It was not until 1924 that the economic situation in Germany conso­li­dated and a housing construction program began that was unique in Europe. Up until the Great Depression in 1930, tens of thousands of apart­ments were built, primarily in Berlin and Frankfurt am Main, but also in smaller towns.

Mehrfamilienhaus, Dammerstock Siedlung Karlsruhe, 1929, Architekt: Walter Gropius

Karlsruhe: Residential Complex, Dammerstock Estate, 1929, Architect: Walter Gropius

House Interest Tax

1924 saw the intro­duction of the house interest tax by the state.

These taxes were levied on homeowners who had built before 1921, since their property had not been devalued in the inflation, but had been relieved of debt.

Only part of this considerable tax revenue, which was primarily intended to relieve the burden on public budgets, benefited housing construction.

Nevertheless, the house interest tax and the associated house interest tax mortgages developed into the decisive engine of the municipal housing construction activity that developed in the following years.

Neues Bauen may be considered synonymous with modernism, but it was by no means as widespread as it appeared, primarily due to the attention it received in literature and the media since the postwar years.

Interwar Years

The majority of archi­tecture in Germany between the two wars followed a hybrid formal approach that took local building tradi­tions into account without losing sight of modernist concepts.

Numerous high-quality buildings and housing estates were built, for which compe­ti­tions were announced in advance, in the course of which it was carefully considered and set out in writing which type of modernist building seemed appro­priate in a parti­cular urban situation and regional setting.

New buildings often triggered a considerable contem­porary response within the population and among the press.

High-rise debates were held, the pros and cons passio­nately discussed.

Nearly every new building was given a nickname by the population, a mark of the strong identi­fi­cation with the structure in the public space.

Modernism and National Socialism

The seizure of power by Adolf Hitler and the dicta­torship of National Socialism marked a radical change of direction.

At first, the archi­tects of the twenties would often not acknow­ledge that the condi­tions for building had changed so rapidly.

There was still a certain amount of freedom in the early years, especially in the creative field, but the hopes of many artists and archi­tects that modernism would be recognized as a so-called German or Nordic achie­vement were illusory.

Modernism – whether in archi­tecture or in other areas – was now only applied where it was of use to the regime, namely in indus­trial and armaments construction, ratio­na­lization or propaganda.

The Bauhaus repre­sen­ta­tives were dismissed and subse­quently no longer received public commissions.

Walter Gropius and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe managed to design sections of the exhibition Deutsches Volk – Deutsche Arbeit in 1934.

And in 1935, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe was commis­sioned to design the German pavilion at the World’s Fair in Brussels.

Persecution and exile

Numerous well-known archi­tects, graphic artists and designers of the former Weimar Republic came to terms with the National Socialist system, with indus­trial and engineering buildings in parti­cular remaining the domain of modernism in the service of rearmament and war.

During the years of the National Socialist dicta­torship, the individual fates of archi­tects and artists ranged from complicity and going along with the system, to adapt­ation and arran­gement, to the split between public and private activity, and finally to exile.

All archi­tects and artists of Jewish faith, non-conformist political stance or undesi­rable sexual orien­tation had to emigrate or were perse­cuted and murdered.